February 19, 2023
By Kevin Glew
Cooperstowners in Canada
Some Canadian baseball news and notes from the past week:
-Right-hander Mike Soroka (Calgary, Alta.) is being held back from throwing at the Atlanta Braves’ camp due to tightness in his left hamstring, according to Justin Toscano, of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Braves manager Brian Snitker told reporters the injury is not a big concern. The 25-year-old Soroka has not pitched in a major league game since tearing his Achilles tendon in a start for the Braves on August 3, 2020. He then re-tore his Achilles the following June. After two years of recovery and rehabilitation, he returned to game action in August last year and posted a 5.40 ERA in six late-season starts between class-A and triple-A before being shut down with elbow inflammation. A graduate of the Junior National Team, Soroka was a first-round pick (28th overall) of the Braves in 2015. In 2019, he went 13-4 with a 2.68 ERA in 29 starts and finished second in the National League Rookie of the Year voting.
-Toronto Blue Jays closer Jordan Romano (Markham, Ont.) explained his decision to not participate in this year’s World Classic for either Italy or Canada at Blue Jays camp in Dunedin, Fla., on Wednesday. “There were a couple of things,” Romano told Rob Longley of the Toronto Sun. “First, (the WBC) is in the middle of spring training and I just didn’t want to rush things to get ready. I was committed (to Team Italy) early, but as time went on, I just felt like I would be pushing it to get ready. I just wanted to focus on my stuff here.” Romano pitched for Italy in the 2017 World Baseball Classic to honour his father, Joseph, who was born there. The hard-throwing right-hander emerged as one of the best closers in the big leagues in 2022. In 63 games, he recorded a 2.11 ERA, which is the eighth best ever by a Canadian reliever that has thrown at least 50 innings in a season. Romano also registered 36 saves, which was the third most in the American League and became the first Canadian to register 30 saves in a season for a Canadian major league team. For his efforts, he was named the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame’s 2022 Tip O’Neill Award winner, as top Canuck player.
-Canadian baseball legend Fergie Jenkins (Chatham, Ont.) shared on Twitter on Tuesday that he’ll be in Chicago Cubs camp in Mesa, Ariz., this spring to work with pitchers. It’s something Jenkins has done quietly for years. After his Hall of Fame pitching career in which he registered 284 wins in 19 big league seasons between 1965 and 1983, Jenkins became a respected pitching coach in the Texas Rangers and Cincinnati Reds organizations before becoming the big league pitching coach for the Cubs in 1995 and 1996.
-Left-hander Mitch Bratt (Newmarket, Ont.), who will pitch for Canada at this year’s World Baseball Classic, joined the Canadian Baseball Network podcast to talk about his career this week. You can listen to the 24-minute interview here. The 19-year-old Toronto Mets alum is expected to pitch out of the bullpen for Canada in the World Baseball Classic even though he has been a starter in the Texas Rangers organization. Selected in the fifth round of the 2021 MLB draft by the Rangers, Bratt tied for first among Canadians in the affiliated minor league ranks in 2022 in wins (5), was second in ERA (2.45) and was third in innings (80 2/3) and tied for third in strikeouts (99). He averaged 11 strikeouts per nine innings and was named the Low-A Down East Wood Ducks Pitcher of the Month for June and July and the Rangers’ Minor League Starting Pitcher of the Month for July. For his efforts, he was named the Canadian Baseball Network’s 2022 Wayne Norton Award winner, as top Canuck pitcher in the affiliated minor league ranks.
-The coaching staff for Canada at this year’s World Baseball Classic is very impressive. It includes four Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame inductees – manager Ernie Whitt and coaches Denis Boucher (Lachine, Que.), Paul Quantrill (Port Hope, Ont.) and Larry Walker (Maple Ridge, B.C.) – and two surefire future Canadian ball hall inductees in national teams director Greg Hamilton (Peterborough, Ont.) and Russell Martin (Montreal, Que.). Former Toronto Blue Jays first base coach Tim Leiper is also part of the staff.
-Canadian Baseball Network editor-in-chief and Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame inductee Bob Elliott (Kingston, Ont.) sent out this encouraging tweet (see below) on Friday night. This would be wonderful news. It would be hard to find an ex-Jay that has given more to the organization than Pat Hentgen.
-Sixty-nine years ago today, a 19-year-old Puerto Rican outfield prospect named Roberto Clemente signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Scouted by Al Campanis and signed to a $15,000 contract, Clemente was assigned to their International League affiliate Montreal Royals. With a rule in place that stipulated that any team signing a rookie to a contract over $4,000 must keep that player on their major league roster for the season or risk losing them in an off-season draft (equivalent to today’s Rule 5 draft), sending the talented youngster to Montreal was a gamble. Clemente’s season with the Royals would be a frustrating one for the raw and talented teenager. Despite being one of the Dodgers’ best prospects, the slender outfielder was sent to the plate only 148 times in a 154-game season. On-the-field frustrations aside, Clemente seemed to enjoy the city of Montreal. The city offered the outfielder some refuge from the overt racism he encountered when he played in International League cities like Richmond, Va. But the cultural solace Montreal provided was little consolation for the highly motivated Clemente. Driven to become a major league player, he grew disenchanted as the season wore on and considered going home to Puerto Rico. Fortunately, his luck would change when Branch Rickey, general manager of the last-place Pittsburgh Pirates, dispatched scout Clyde Sukeforth to check out Royals pitcher Joe Black. Legend has it that the veteran scout grew so enamored with Clemente that he never did see Black pitch. The Pirates knew they would finish last in the National League that season and that would give them the first pick in the off-season (Rule 5) draft. And before the end of his trip, Sukeforth was convinced that the raw but athletic Clemente would be the first selection. The Pirates spoke with Clemente and told him to grind out the rest of the season and the Pirates would take him in the Rule 5 draft. True to their word, the Pirates did just that on November 22, 1954. And the rest, as they say, is history.
-Please take a moment to remember legendary B.C. baseball coach and Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame inductee Andy Bilesky who passed away 15 years ago at the age of 89. With an emphasis on discipline, hard work and sportsmanship, Bilesky guided his Little League teams to 28 district championships, 11 provincial titles and five Canadian championships. The Trail, B.C. native’s squads competed in the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa., five times (1967, 1976, 1980, 1981, 1990). According to the Canadian Little League Association, Bilesky is the only coach to have piloted teams to the Little League World Series more than three times. Among the hundreds of players that Bilesky coached, two of the most famous are major leaguer Jason Bay and former NHL player Ray Ferraro. For his tireless efforts, Bilesky was selected coach of the year by B.C. Amateur Baseball twice (1967, 1976) and in 1975, a Little League park in Trail was named in his honour. He was also inducted into the B.C. Sports Hall of Fame in 1994.
-Big league umpire Stu Scheurwater (Regina, Sask.) recently donated some of his gear to the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in St. Marys, Ont. (See photo below). Scheurwater was hired as a full-time major league umpire prior to the 2018 season and has worked in two major league postseasons (2020, 2022). The 39-year-old Canadian, who umpired his first big league contest on April 25, 2014, had 253 games of major league experience under his belt before he was hired full-time. Prior to his pro career, Scheurwater honed his skills through Baseball Canada’s National Umpiring program. Among his assignments were the Baseball Canada Cup in Medicine Hat, Alta., in 2005 and the 21U National Championships in Guelph, Ont. the following year. His road to the big leagues in the professional ranks began in the Arizona League in 2007. He then worked in the Northwest, South Atlantic, Carolina and Texas leagues prior to calling games for six triple-A seasons. Scheurwater is the first full-time Canadian big league umpire since Montreal native Jim McKean, who worked games from 1974 to 2001.
-This week’s trivia question: There are five umpires that have been inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame. Name one of them. Please provide your answer in the “Comments” section below.
-The answer to last week’s trivia question (What Canadian outfielder was named to the World Baseball Classic All-Star Team in 2013?) was Michael Saunders (Victoria, B.C.).